European & International News

Women of Tahrir: Frustration at revolution’s failures

[BBC, 06 January 2012] It was a photograph that shocked the world - an Egyptian military policeman beating a protester in a hijab with sticks and dragging her along the street so that her clothes were torn open. It seemed to symbolise the vulnerability of women in a society that has changed little since last year’s revolution.

Many Egyptian women felt they had few rights or protections under President Hosni Mubarak, but the sense of liberation after he fell raised many women’s hopes.

Although they were in the front line alongside men during the revolution, a year on there is a clear sense of disappointment felt by many women he woman in that photo was taking part in a sit-in near Tahrir Square in December when the military police attacked the protesters.

Local human rights watchdogs accused the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), currently ruling Egypt, of systematically targeting women in the square to make them think twice before taking to the street again.

This wasn’t the first time women had been violently mistreated by the military police.

A month earlier a similar thing happened to Nada Zatouna, an independent filmmaker who was filming clashes between protesters and the police near Tahrir Square when she was attacked and arrested.

Independent spirit

When you meet Nada, you can tell that although she is petite, she is strong and independent of spirit.

At the age of 19 she decided she wanted to live on her own. This is unusual in Cairo, a city where women and men live with their parents until they get married no matter how old they are. After six months of negotiation with her mother, Nada got her own way. But other people found it hard to accept.

"Once, I had friends over and I was shocked by the concierge knocking at my door threatening to call the police, because there were men and women in the flat together," she said.

Although it is still barely acceptable for a young unmarried woman to live on her own, Nada believes that it is her right to choose the way she wants to live, and she is prepared to fight for what she wants.

"Rights are not gifts to be given, they have to be won," she said.

In January, during the 18 days of the uprising that toppled President Mubarak, Egyptian women were out in Tahrir Square facing tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon.

However, not too long after ousting Mubarak, women began to feel that their rights were being ignored in post-revolutionary Egypt.

Shouted down

It all started three weeks after the fall of the old regime. Hundreds of women were in Tahrir Square celebrating International Women’s Day and trying to draw attention to women’s issues, but they found themselves being shouted down by groups of men who told them that it was not the right time to be making a fuss about women’s issues.

Among those women was Sally Zohney, a Twitter activist in her mid-20s who runs youth projects for the group UN Women.

She says that the concept of "not the right time for women" doesn’t make sense.

"Women have been there taking part from the very beginning of the revolution," she said.

In one of her tweets, she says: "Ppl call me a #feminist whenever I have thoughts that distinguish me from a doormat."

Sally was one of the volunteers on the barricades put up around Tahrir Square last year, checking the identities of people coming in.
Samira Ibrahim Samira Ibrahim won a legal battle against police to stop virginity tests on female protesters

The day after International Women’s Day, the army decided to clear the square. They arrested hundreds of people, among them 17 women who were taken first to the Egyptian Museum where they were verbally abused, beaten up and given electric shocks.

Samira Ibrahim, 25, was among them. She had made the 400km (248 mile) journey from the city of Sohag to take part in the demonstration.

"I had always dreamt of visiting the Egyptian Museum but it never occurred to me that when I did finally make that visit, it would be to be beaten up and given electric shocks," she said.

’Virginity tests’

Samira and the other women were then taken to an army detention centre where they were asked to stand in two lines, one for married women and the other for those unmarried. Samira stood in the latter. She was then called to another room.

"In the room there was a woman who told me to take off my clothes because they wanted to check if I was a virgin or not. I told her this wasn’t legal and they had no right to ask me to strip naked in front of everyone.

"But after they had given me another electric shock, I stopped resisting. The test was done by a man who used his hand. It took him five minutes to do it," Samira said

Samira launched a legal challenge against the military council to stop similar virginity tests from happening again. Cairo’s administrative court eventually ruled that the tests were illegal.

At first the army denied that the tests had taken place, but later a senior general, speaking anonymously, admitted that they had happened.

"The girls who were detained are not like your daughter or mine," he said.

"These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square."

Samira said that she was boycotting the current parliamentary election. She said that she couldn’t trust the election to be fair and free as long as the military council was in charge.

’First real election’

But on the first day of voting in November, a huge number of women turned out to cast their vote. They were happy to queue and wait their turn. As one of them said to me: "It’s the first time I have voted in an election where I didn’t know the result beforehand."

One of the women in the line was a bubbly 19-year-old, Sarah Mohamed. She wore a long dress and a headscarf. Sarah is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), an Islamist group that was banned from forming a political party during the old regime.
Sarah Mohamed Sarah Mohamed says women have a bigger role to play in Egyptian political life

But now the MB’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), looks set to be the biggest party in the new parliament. Many Egyptian women worry that this might not be in the long-term interest of women. They point out that although the MB has parliamentary candidates, there is not a single woman in a senior position in the MB.

The new parliament will have very few women in it. The MB is not alone in putting women so low on its party lists that they have little chance of being elected. Sarah, who supports the party, is disappointed by this.

"I feel bad about that because people must know that women have a bigger role to play in political life," Sarah said. "Women can do more than just stay home and raise children."

Despite the disappointment of women who took part in the revolution, they are determined to claim their rights.

In December, thousands of women - and men - marched in solidarity with the woman who had her clothes torn open and was beaten by the military police.

The rally was considered the biggest women’s march in decades. In response, the military council issued a message on its Facebook page saying they regret the violations that took place in December.

Nada still goes to Tahrir Square to film despite the humiliation she was subjected to.

"They think they can break us by torture, but now we are stronger," she said.

Sally still tweets about women’s rights and still believes in the revolution’s ideals.

"Women have to earn whatever rights they demand," she said.

"We have to fight for our rights, no-one is granting rights, rights are earned. The 25th of January taught us that."

As for Sarah, she dreams of being prime minister of Egypt one day.

Latest video

EWL event "Progress towards a Europe free from all forms of male violence" to mark the 10th aniversary of the Istanbul Convention, 12 May 2021.

Facebook Feed

Get Involved